When one hears the term reproductive rights, often, the first thing that comes to mind is the debate over the morality of abortion. However, the issue of abortion and reproductive justice spans far beyond the pro-choice vs. pro-life argument. Women of color, immigrant women, and disabled women were victims of forced sterilization, and minority women have long been marginalized in reproductive rights movements.
Since slavery in America, various government institutions and white-dominated groups have limited women of color’s agency over their reproductive rights. In 1808, Congress abolished the increasingly lucrative slave trade, and slave owners responded by forcing their female slaves to bear as many children as possible. The South’s economy depended on slave labor, so planters perceived their slaves’ fertility as vital to a constant labor source. Southern society dehumanized enslaved women as mere “breeders” and “physical specimens” for research (Owens 21-26). Wealthy planters justified their exploitative actions with the racist stereotypes that Black women possessed innate lasciviousness (Owens 75-77).
During the 1880s, early American sociologists advocated for a form of selective breeding, which would become known as eugenics. Eugenic proponents believed state and federal governments should intervene to regulate the reproduction of the ‘unfit’. The ‘unfit’ or ‘defective’ included the disabled, mentally ill, and racial minorities. Elites in power determining who was ‘unfit’ often harbored racist and sexist biases(Farber). Mainstream 1920s feminist and birth control movements did not prioritize women of color’s needs. For example, influential advocates embraced harmful eugenic ideas to further their cause (Flores; Sanger).
According to the International Justice Resource Center, sterilization abuse is the “involuntary or coerced removal of a person’s ability to reproduce”(International Justice). By 1936, more than 60,000 state-sanctioned sterilizations had been performed across the country on mentally ill patients. Deemed ‘unfit’ to reproduce, victims were most often Black and low-income (Farber). Sterilizations in the United States continued over the next two decades. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, eugenic-minded doctors and social workers wanted to “reduc[e] the number of blacks eligible to receive public assistance”(Kluchin 72-75).
American hospitals did not implement concrete regulations for informed consent, which facilitated sterilization abuse. Southern physicians performed involuntary hysterectomies on Black women during C-sections or abdominal surgeries during the ‘60s and ‘70s (Kluchin 74-76). Mexican immigrant women were targeted to stem the growing immigrant population. In addition, Indigenous, Puerto Rican, and Black women were targets of efforts to reduce dependency on federal aid. Various forms of coercion occurred. For example, doctors exploited the language barrier facing non-English speaking women of color, and some social workers threatened to withdraw public assistance if the women refused to proceed with surgery. Most doctors withheld information about the procedures to some degree, such as describing irreversible sterilization as “protect[ion] against pregnancy”(Kluchin 101-103).
When two victims of these procedures gained national attention, subsequent investigations revealed the extent of decades-long sterilization abuse. Mary and Minnie Relf, two Black sisters with special needs, were coerced into tubal ligation procedures at just 12 and 14 years old in 1973. Their family’s lawsuit, Relf v. Weinberger, received national media coverage, and the court found a lack of medical protocol (Kluchin 100). The investigation revealed that 100,000 to 150,000 low-income patients received sterilization procedures each year in the early 1970s. Ultimately, Relf v. Weinberger resulted in an order that blocked the usage of federal funds for coercive sterilization procedures (“Relf v. Weinberger”). However, despite legal victories against sterilization abuse, women of color continue to have limited access to reproductive health services to this day. Some still experience coercive sterilization operations.
Race, class, and gender affect their access to reproductive health services, and activists often overlook these underlying circumstances. It is important to recognize the differences between reproductive rights and justice. Reproductive freedom focuses on women’s choice and agency, such as women’s right to abortion. On the other hand, reproductive justice is the “complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social and economic well-being of women and girls” through “protection of [their] human rights” (Ross 14). Advocacy for both of these frameworks that work against oppression is key towards progress (Ross 15-16).
Low-income women of color face significant barriers in accessing crucial reproductive healthcare. Passed in 1980, the Hyde Amendment blocks the usage of federal funding for abortion services. Extreme cases of danger, incest, and rape are the only exception. People covered under the federal-funded Medicaid program, including many BIPOC women, would have to pay out of pocket for the procedure. A 2009 study found that approximately 44% of women who paid out of pocket for abortions expended money they saved for living costs (“Access Denied”).
In recent history, coercive sterilizations persist in ICE detention centers and in prisons, albeit on a smaller scale. From 2006 to 2010, in California’s state prisons, 148 female inmates underwent tubal ligation. One California prison’s OBGYN remarked that the amount the surgeons were paid was reasonable “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as [the inmates] procreated more” (Chappell). There are also numerous reports of detainees receiving non-consensual hysterectomies in the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. In 2019, Jamaican immigrant Wendy Dowe was pressured into surgery after presenting with menstrual cramps. A gynecologist had performed a medically unnecessary fallopian tube removal, exaggerating the direness of Wendy’s health situation (Dickerson, Caitlin, et al.).
Current Efforts and For Now Response
Formed in 1997, SisterSong is a social justice organization that focuses its efforts on reproductive justice for women of color and LGBTQ people. They spread awareness and work towards providing direct help to women of color. Motivated to improve health outcomes, they also offer support for mothers by offering educational resources. Furthermore, in regards to other barriers women of color face, they fight for fair wages and safe homes from domestic violence. With both setbacks and gains in reproductive rights efforts, reproductive justice requires collaboration between officials and grassroots organizations to achieve success. Due to its intersection with other social justice issues, the issue is complex and difficult to tackle (Abrams; SisterSong).
- Legal barriers: Work to dismantle legal barriers that limit women’s access to reproductive health services in all states. You can sign petitions, lobby your local representatives, and more. The EACH Women Act introduced in 2019 was intended to overturn the Hyde Amendment, facilitating access to abortion coverage for women of color.
- School education and reproductive health: Include comprehensive sex education curriculums, which help students develop full agency over their reproductive decisions.
- Intersection with other areas of social justice: Work towards resolving other social justice issues. Many social factors (i.e: racial inequality, wealth gap, gender inequality, access to education, political/social influence) impact women of color’s right to choose.
- Vote for officials who will enact policies that support equal access to reproductive health care among women of color and other marginalized women.
- Volunteer your time, or contribute your resources to organizations like SisterSong and Planned Parenthood.
- Stay informed by regularly watching the news.
- My full historical essay is linked here.
- My full current problem essay is linked here.
- My Works Cited is linked here.
Request for Feedback
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- Have you heard about the issues facing women of color in reproductive health care prior to reading?
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